How does vision develop in babies?

“The deepest insight that comes out of looking attentively at babies is understanding where our ability to look attentively comes from. The most interesting thing about babies is that they are enormously interested; the most wonderful thing about them is their infinite capacity for wonder.”

[Gopnik et al., 1999]

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At 3 months, Bobby’s attention seems to be drawn by edges – the roof line, the top of the hedge and fence – especially those outlined against the sky where there is strong contrast. Research has documented that young babies are most interested in objects that present marked differences in contrasts of light and dark [Lamb, Bornstein & Teti, 2002 in Martin & Berke, 2007].

This schematic interest in edges and boundaries helps to build perceptive ability in the brain that allows the baby to see things as separate objects against a background – it enables them to begin to interpret the vast amount of visual information being received. Whilst Bobby can make sense of close-up things she has seen many times, such as Mum’s face, understanding the visual landscape takes time and much experience. Focusing first on contrast and edges allows this to be organised in a systematic way.

We can see Bobby looking close and far as her brain seeks stimulus that will slowly build into the capacities to actually see in depth, understand how the world is 3-dimensional and operate successfully in it. Binocular vision (having two eyes simultaneously sending slightly different images to the brain) also enhances depth perception, but the eyes need plenty of early 3D experience for the brain to tie the two groups of information into a single image.

Whilst Bobby can make sense of close-up things she has seen many times, such as Mum’s face, understanding the visual landscape takes time and much experience. Focusing first on contrast and edges allows this to be organised in a systematic way.

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Even though Bobby is outside for only a short time, once we appreciate how much stimulation she is getting in this rich and complex environment (all the other senses are working just as hard at the same time), we can understand that several short periods outdoors may match the attention span of a child at this age more than a few, longer ones. Bobby may well need to sleep for a while now so that her brain can process everything that has just happened [Karmiloff-Smith, 2010 – see also the notes on Miles].

Vision is extremely important to humans, and in order to construct the highly complex sensory system that it is, they need to spend plenty of time receiving a very wide range of visual stimuli, such as bright and dark, colour and tones, edges and contrast, near and far, motion and stillness [Gibson, 1986]. Taking babies outdoors increases all aspects of visual development, especially the ability to see things at a distance and to perceive motion.

It takes several years to achieve full adult vision, so continual visual stimulation is very important in the early years [Day, 2009], and babies need to experience real objects in natural light [Martin & Berke, 2007]. Evidence is currently building from medical research that outdoor light and a strongly 3D visual landscape affects the way the eyeball grows, reducing the development of short-sightedness [e.g. Rose et al., 2008].

As well as learning to see individual objects, their texture, shape, colour, size and so on (the task of light sensitive cells in the retina called cones that are wiring up a stream to the brain that determines ‘what is it?’), an entirely different stream in the visual system concentrates on location, directing and speed, asking ‘where is it, where is it going and how fast is it moving?’ [Sax, 2005: 22]. This task begins with cells arranged around the outside of the retina called rods. We tend to pay attention to the objects that are in the centre of our field of view, but actually our ‘peripheral vision’ is equally important to us, especially for keeping us safe from unexpected harm.

Our increasingly indoor, sedentary and screen-oriented lifestyles are leading to poor peripheral vision in today’s children [Forencich, 2006]. Bobby’s many opportunities at the park to take in a wide landscape, pay so much attention to movement of so many kinds, and link what she sees with what she simultaneously hears and feels, is exactly what she needs during this year to develop the full suite of vision capacities she needs for learning and life.

Bobby’s many opportunities at the park to take in a wide landscape, pay so much attention to movement of so many kinds, and link what she sees with what she simultaneously hears and feels, is exactly what she needs during this year to develop the full suite of vision capacities she needs for learning and life.

Vision is extremely important to humans, and in order to construct the highly complex sensory system that it is, they need to spend plenty of time receiving a very wide range of visual stimuli, such as bright and dark, colour and tones, edges and contrast, near and far, motion and stillness [Gibson, 1986]. Taking babies outdoors increases all aspects of visual development, especially the ability to see things at a distance and to perceive motion.

It takes several years to achieve full adult vision, so continual visual stimulation is very important in the early years [Day, 2009], and babies need to experience real objects in natural light [Martin & Berke, 2007]. Evidence is currently building from medical research that outdoor light and a strongly 3D visual landscape affects the way the eyeball grows, reducing the development of short-sightedness [e.g. Rose et al., 2008].

As well as learning to see individual objects, their texture, shape, colour, size and so on (the task of light sensitive cells in the retina called cones that are wiring up a stream to the brain that determines ‘what is it?’), an entirely different stream in the visual system concentrates on location, directing and speed, asking ‘where is it, where is it going and how fast is it moving?’ [Sax, 2005: 22].

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This task begins with cells arranged around the outside of the retina called rods. We tend to pay attention to the objects that are in the centre of our field of view, but actually our ‘peripheral vision’ is equally important to us, especially for keeping us safe from unexpected harm. Our increasingly indoor, sedentary and screen-oriented lifestyles are leading to poor peripheral vision in today’s children [Forencich, 2006].

Bobby’s many opportunities at the park to take in a wide landscape, pay so much attention to movement of so many kinds, and link what she sees with what she simultaneously hears and feels, is exactly what she needs during this year to develop the full suite of vision capacities she needs for learning and life.

Excerpt from Babies Outdoors booklet – written by Jan White, Early years Under threes Outdoors expert

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